It's difficult to encapsulate such a complex year in a word, but "interconnected" is one that comes to mind when reflecting on 2020. We are proud to have remained deeply interconnected with defenders and to have supported, protected and amplified their work at the national, regional and international levels. With them, the "essential workers" of our times, we strive for a 2021 full of freedom, equality, dignity and justice.
This session remains one of the most well-attended sessions of the African Commission. A total of 1663 delegates attended the session, among them 214 State representatives from 28 countries, 20 delegates representing organs of the African Union (AU), five delegates representing the Regional Economic Communities, 23 representatives of international and inter-governmental organisations, 138 representatives of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), 1101 representatives of African and international non-governmental organisations, 107 observers; and 55 press and media organisations.
On behalf of the Forum of non-governmental organisations (NGO) Steering Committee, Hanna Foster indicated that the celebration of the anniversary of three key human rights instruments – the 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 20 years of the Maputo Protocol on Women’s Rights in Africa and the 25 years of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders – provides an opportunity to review challenges and progress in the protection of human rights on the continent. She added that participants to the NGO Forum that preceded the formal opening of the 77th Ordinary Session noted the pervasive nature of conflicts on the continent, the continuous shrinking of the civic space and the digital divide. Participants in the NGO Forum called for companies to be held accountable for their actions and stakeholders to strengthen collaboration among them. The Minister of Human Rights of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Albert Fabrice Puela, noted, on behalf of State parties to the African Charter, the regression in the protection of human rights in Africa characterised by conflicts in the DRC and South Sudan, terrorism in Libya and other countries, adverse effects of climate change, natural catastrophes in Morocco and Libya, lack of access to water among others and called for unity of actions. Positively, he noted several normative progresses in the DRC to implement transitional justice mechanisms that will allow victims of egregious human rights violations to access justice and obtain reparation. Dr Robert Eno, representing the President of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, reminded the participants that ‘we all have a collective responsibility to defend human rights’ and highlighted the need for effective complementarity between the African Court and the African Commission. He lamented about the low number of cases transferred by the Commission to the Court despite the clear treaty-based possibility to do so, the insignificant number of individuals allowed to access directly the African Court and the failure by States to implement the African Court decisions.
Solemn declarations and new Bureau
One newly-elected Commissioner, Selma Sassi-Safer, and three re-elected Commissioners made solemn declarations to discharge their duties impartially and faithfully. Commissioners Rémy Ngoy Lumbu, Hatem Essaiem and Maria Teresa Manuela were re-elected for another six-year term.
The Commission convened in a private session to renew its Bureau. The Chairperson was re-elected for an additional two-year term while Commissioner Janet Ramatoulie Sallah-Njie won the vice presidency. She replaces Commissioner Maya Sahli-Fadel whose term came to an end this year. Commissioner Selma Sassi-Safer inherits Commissioner Maya’s mechanisms. She is the African Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Internally Displaced Persons and Migrants in Africa and Country Rapporteur for Libya, Niger, Senegal, and Tunisia.
Panel discussions and launch of documents
A total of 12 panel discussions were held during the session to discuss various themes. Discussions aimed to strengthen the protection and promotion of human and peoples’ rights on the continent. The panel on the ratification of the Protocol to the African Charter on Social Protection in Africa aimed at raising awareness of participants including State representatives on the existence of this protocol which was adopted in February 2022 and the relevance of its ratification. This panel also disseminated the recently adopted General Comment No. 7 on State obligations under the African Charter in the context of the provision of social services. Another panel discussed the first draft of the African Commission’s Study on the Impact of Climate Change on Human Rights and called on various stakeholders to submit their comments and additions to the study which is currently available on the African Commission’s website.
The African Commission also launched a series of documents. Specific mechanisms developed these documents to showcase their activities or to provide in-depth insights on specific issues arising in the protection and promotion of human and peoples’ rights in Africa. The following documents were launched:
- African Guiding Principles on the Human Rights of All Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers;
- Study on the African Responses to Migration;
- Study on the Use of Force by Law Enforcement Officers and Prison Guards;
- Newsletter on Maputo@20: A Celebration of 20 Years of the Rights of Women and Girls in Africa; and
- Report on the Jurisprudence on Article 5 of the African Charter;
- CPTA’s 2023 Newsletter; and
- Newsletter of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders.
The Newsletter of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Rémy Ngoy Lumbu, covers the situation of defenders in the five African sub-regions and highlights, when necessary, the plight of individual defenders such as the brutal killing, early this year, of prominent Swati human rights activist, Advocate Thulani Maseko. Lumbu recommended that States ensure the protection of defenders per the African Charter and the UN Declaration on Defenders and highlighted the need for Africa to adopt its declaration on human rights defenders. During the launch, Corlett Letlojane, Executive Director of the Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA), painted a bleak picture of the situation of human rights defenders in Africa.
‘While laws promise that human rights defenders should operate freely without reprisals, States are creating an environment that is not conducive to their activities. Defenders are being referred to as foreign agents for regime change, the freedoms of association and assembly continue to be impeded despite existing normative standards the Commission has developed to help states protect these rights’, she observed.
Activity report of commissioners
Members of the Commission presented their inter-session reports highlighting the activities undertaken in their capacity as Commissioners, country rapporteurs and mandate holders of special mechanisms. ISHR made two statements (see here and here) following the presentation of the report by the Chairperson of the Working Group on Extractive Industries, Environment and Human Rights Violations in Africa (WGEI) and by the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and Focal Point on Reprisals. In his report, the Chairperson of the Working Group, Commissioner Solomon Ayele Dersso, noted numerous activities he conducted to raise awareness of the African Commission’s State Reporting Guidelines and Principles on Articles 21 And 24 of the African Charter relating to Extractive Industries, Human Rights and the Environment. In its statement, ISHR reiterated the need to adopt an environmental rights instrument in Africa and its call to the WGEI to initiate and develop such an instrument. On their part, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Commissioner Rémy Ngoy Lumbu acknowledged, in his inter-session report, how acts of reprisals are still rife and multifaceted in Africa. In its statement, ISHR highlighted significant concerns about the state of human rights defenders (HRDs) and civic space in Africa. It reviewed trends in Angola and Zimbabwe, among others, consisting of adopting laws that curb the ability of defenders to exercise their activities freely.
Two States presented their periodic reports to the African Commission under Article 62 of the African Charter. Uganda’s report covering the period 2013-2022 also highlighted the progress the country has made in implementing the Maputo Protocol under Article 26. The report of Eritrea covers the period 2017-2020. The Commission considered these reports and entered into a constructive dialogue with State representatives on issues of significance to the protection and promotion of human and peoples’ rights in the respective countries.
NGOs observer status
During the session, the African Commission granted observer status to nine non-governmental organisations (NGOs) one of which, the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda, centres its activities on the protection and promotion of defender’s rights in Uganda and building their coalitions at the national level. The Commission rejected four applications for observer status from NGOs because they did not have offices in Africa and one other because it enjoyed a diplomatic status which is not consistent with the Commission’s criteria for granting such a status. ISHR was, nonetheless, concerned about the legal basis for rejecting the applications of the four organisations and called on the African Commission to adopt an inclusive practice for granting the observer status. To date, the Commission has granted observer status to 561 NGOs.
Country and thematic resolutions
The African Commission adopted one country resolution and six thematic resolutions in the following order:
- Resolution on the Human Rights Situation and Humanitarian Crisis caused by the ongoing Armed Conflict in the Republic of Sudan.
- Resolution on the Commitment of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to support States in the search for Lasting Solutions to reduce Forced Displacement and its Consequences in Africa;
- Resolution on the Need to undertake a Study to assess the Level of Compliance of National Legislations with the Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa;
- Resolution on the Deployment of Mass and Unlawful Targeted Communication Surveillance and its Impact on Human Rights in Africa;
- Resolution on the Need to Protect Civic Space, Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa;
- Resolution on the Appointment of a Focal Point on Judicial Independence in Africa; and
- Resolution on the Criteria for Granting and Maintaining Observer Status to Non-Governmental Organizations Working on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Africa.
In its Final Communiqué, the Commission indicated it will hold its 78th private ordinary session, virtually, from 23 February to 8 March 2024 and promised to provide details at a later stage on its website.